But as Jordan Sheffield released the pitch, Soto shuffled twice for a big secondary lead. When Josh Bell tapped a grounder to the right side, Soto bounded for third, eyes fixed ahead, and rounded the base toward home. His turn was textbook, his right foot tapping the inside corner of the bag. Then Bell was thrown out at first, and the inning ended. Soto slowed and took a deep breath.
“That’s what you want to know about?” he asked the next afternoon, laughing, in front of the visitors’ dugout in Denver. “Nothing happened.”
“Okay, so . . .” Soto began, straightening his face. “One day I’m going to be older, and I’m still going to want to win championships, win rings. And when that happens, I have to make sure the next guys saw how to play the game the right way. If I just jog, they are watching. If I don’t go all-out, they are watching that. I know they are always watching.”
When Soto debuted in 2018, recognition was one of his superpowers. It seems, then, that nothing has changed.
His 144 walks lead all hitters. With two more games this weekend, that’s 45 ahead of Bryce Harper, whom Soto is trying to beat for the National League MVP award. Soto’s strike zone feel has helped him reach base in an MLB-best 46 percent of his plate appearances (and 58 percent with runners in scoring position). No one is better at earning the 90 feet between home and first. His power shows in an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.011.
And Soto is also younger than Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, the majors’ top prospect, a could-be phenom who has yet to make the majors — but still aware of his influence on the next generation. Even more, though, Soto could have the ability to connect baseball’s past, present and future. That process already could be in motion.
On one hand, the outfielder plays with a joy and flair that may attract younger fans and young players to a game steeped in rigid, homogenous norms. On the other, he treats its nuances and competitive standards with a care that grabs old-school coaches and viewers. He is, quite possibly, something an entire sport and its following can agree on. In that way, as in many others, he is incredibly rare.
“That’s what I’m trying to be,” Soto admitted, eyes wide and smiling. “A player for everybody.”
“What he’s doing at his age, at the level he’s doing it, could change the entire game,” Kevin Long, the Nationals’ hitting coach, explained this week. “He is on the fast track to being an all-time great and has the whole country gripped for the ride. And it should be. Every at-bat.”
“It’s truly remarkable to possess the power, the average, the solid defense, the energy, the personality,” Bud Black, the 64-year-old manager of the Rockies, said in September. “What a package. What a player. He makes baseball better.”
‘He has the key’
Tommy McCraw was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in 1972, radio on, when he learned Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash. McCraw, an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, was near the end of a 13-year career. He knew Clemente and was floored by the sudden loss. And as he wove through traffic, one element of it — though low on the scale of importance — gave McCraw an idea.
Now no one could ask Clemente for his secrets to hitting a baseball. That’s how a project was born.
“The first person I spoke to was my good friend Frank Robinson,” said McCraw, 80, who was later Robinson’s hitting coach on the first Nationals staff in 2005. “I took a tape recorder, I set up a small video camera in his office, and I had 20 or so questions about what he did in the box. And Frank was just like Rusty Staub and Johnny Bench, and a lot of the other greats I talked with: Simplify it. Crush those fastballs.”
At that, McCraw chuckled from his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla. While playing, he explained, he didn’t unlock a smart approach until his 30s. Otherwise, he spent years trying to guess what the pitcher might throw, tangling his brain into submission. Hitting was a science he could not conquer. He was too busy confusing himself.
So when he set out to record around 30 of the best hitters in history, McCraw made a rule: Each player interviewed had to have success across 10 or more seasons. Fifteen was preferred. But in recent years, as McCraw watched from retirement, an exception emerged.
“That boy Soto, I’d have some questions for him, all right,” McCraw said. “He is special. I mean, he has the key that those other guys had because he can hit the breaking pitches so well, and he knows the strike zone like the back of his hand, so pitchers eventually have to challenge him. What I would want to know, more than anything, is if he’ll ever expand to swing at pitches a bit off the plate. Not saying he should or has to. But I want to know.”
Asked for an answer, Soto grinned like someone who has heard this before. In 2021, Soto has swung at an MLB-low 15.2 percent of pitches outside the zone. The next closest players are at 19.3.
“Yeah, I do think about doing that,” Soto said. “But that’s just because sometimes I get antsy and want to just swing really hard. That’s when I have to remember my approach, which is to always get my best swing off. If I’m swinging at a ball, that’s not my best swing. So, no, I won’t change.”
‘Setting the tone all the time’
In 149 games this season, Soto has walked a total of 12,960 feet. That converts to 2.45 miles, meaning that, if stretched straight from Nationals Park, Soto could reach Capital One Arena in Chinatown or get closer to the Maryland border. He could stroll to the U.S. Capitol, plenty of distance to spare. Does it ever get boring?
“Earlier this year, yes, I was very frustrated,” Soto said, referring to when the Nationals traded Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes by July 30, stripping their lineup to studs. “Before, other teams viewed me as one player in the order . . . someone they had to be careful with. Now it was seeing me as, like, a star and not throwing me many pitches to hit.
“But then I thought: ‘This helps the team. I have to keep taking my walks.’ ”
After the deadline passed, Soto and Long sat and talked about pressure and expectations. Throughout those first few games in early August, as Turner and Max Scherzer were introduced as members of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Soto tried to blast balls to the moon. It felt as if everyone was expecting that from the remaining franchise cornerstone. A rebuild was only days old yet somehow pressing on his shoulders.
Long, 54, was the New York Yankees’ hitting coach for eight seasons, overlapping with Derek Jeter. He told Soto how Jeter never gave less than 100 percent, afraid a kid may see him for the first time and be disappointed. And as Soto does, he dug in, tearing through old Jeter interviews and watching his Hall of Fame speech in full. Then he watched it again.
Since that point, Long says, Soto hasn’t taken a pitch or a defensive play off. This is, of course, the sort of hyperbole reserved for the physical and emotional leader of a struggling team. But watch those moments in Denver, parse the hundreds around it, and there is truth to the outsize compliments. In a secondary lead, in a well-timed jump in the outfield, in a walk or in a 450-foot homer, there’s a player who knows who and what he is.
“You are setting the tone all the time,” Soto said. “No matter what, you have to remember that.”